Outlaw Audio Model 990 AV Preamplifier/Tuner

by | Jun 29, 2006 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

Outlaw Audio Model 990 AV Preamplifier/Tuner
SRP: $1099

Outlaw Audio
P.O. Box 975
Easton, MA 02334
866-688-5292 (voice)

Basic Description

7.1 channel preamp/tuner with: microphone setup; 8 digital inputs (2 coaxial, 5 optical, 1 USB); 2 digital outputs (1 coaxial, 1 optical); DVI in/out (two inputs, 1 output); component video switching (3 input, 1 output); 6 composite/S-video input; zone 2 and record video output (for composite & s-video); 9 analog inputs with digital bypass; MM phono input; balanced audio outputs; video up-conversion for composite and S-video; digital stereo upsampling to 24-bit/192kHz; 30 preset AM/FM stereo tuner; Dolby Digital EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS-ES and Neo:6, 8 channel input, Dolby Headphone, Dolby Virtual Speaker (for two-channel surround), separate crossover adjustments for front, center, side, and rear speakers, RS-232 port, multiroom audio capability with included Zone 2 remote, one on/off 12v trigger, one assignable 12v trigger, lip sync, sleep timer, remote control.

Other Equipment Used

Monster HTS3600 power conditioner, Musical Fidelity A3.5 CD player, Bowers and Wilkins 703, 705, HTM7 and ASW750 speakers, Rega P3 and Elys II cartridge, NAD PP-2, Marantz DV7600 Universal Player, Arcam P7 7-channel amplifier, Audioquest cabling, Rotel RB-1070 power amplifier, Rotel RC-1070 preamplifier (for stereo comparison).

Setup and Options

When I pulled the preamplifier out of the box, I was surprised at its size—this is a big and heavy piece.  There seems to be a good amount of empty space inside, so I guessed that Outlaw uses this same chassis for other pieces as well (a receiver perhaps?)  The jacks on the back are a bit close together, so I would recommend audio cables that don’t have large plugs on the end or they probably won’t fit next to each other easily (or at all). [But the layout of connections on the back looks a lot more understandable than on my AV preamp…Ed.]

To make sure the CD player was connected I pushed the input button and nothing happened.  I hadn’t looked at the manual yet otherwise I would have known you have to push the Up and Down cursor buttons after pushing Input to cycle through the sources.  This won’t make it easy for a first-time user trying to operate the unit from the front panel.  I much prefer having dedicated input buttons although the remote does allow for direct access.

The manual is simply excellent.  It is easy to understand, explains every function, every button and how they operate, and has multiple diagrams to detail various connections to the unit.  One incredibly useful chart is called a “Connection Record Chart.”  Every manual should have one of these.  Under each source there is a place to write in the device, the preset surround mode (if any), what video connection it’s using, what audio connection, etc.  There is also a chart in the manual to explain every surround mode and what they are for.  In addition, there is a helpful section with different source devices explaining possible connection schemes complete with recommendations.

The remote control is the same one Outlaw has used with previous products and is used by other companies–Escient for instance uses this remote.  It’s nothing fancy, but works fine, is backlit, and allows for operation of seven other audio/video components via a 4-digit code.

At first I connected the Outlaw in a stereo setup to listen to its abilities with standard CD, turntable, and radio.  Then I used a multichannel amplifier and tested it in a 5.1 surround configuration.  The Outlaw is capable of 7.1 processing, but I didn’t have an appropriate room or matching set of speakers to use this capability. 

The only source I needed to set up was a DVD player.  After changing to the correct digital connection, I was ready to set delay, speaker size, crossover, etc.  Like many newer receivers and processors these days the Outlaw comes with a microphone which allows for automatic level adjustment and distance.  I set the microphone on the top of my chair and let it go.  It is quite loud, so you probably want to exit the room while it does its thing—just make sure to be there when it is complete so you can save the settings!  The first go around when I thought it had done its job I lost everything because I didn’t save the settings via a push of the remote.

Distance was right (although its accuracy is only to the nearest foot), and level tracked nicely (in one dB increments only).  When I ran it again it kept the same settings–a good sign.  I thought it would adjust crossover and speaker size, but this was not the case.  I had to go in and manually set these options.  Navigating the setup is easy, so after adjusting the rest of the parameters I was ready to go.  I should note the Outlaw allows for different levels on the subwoofer for surround and two-channel listening.  This is a nice feature for those who find that there is too much bass on music or vice versa with the same setting.

The 990 comes equipped with a Zone 2 feature and a separate remote to take advantage of this option.  With an added infrared sensor (and a separate amplifier of course), you can listen in another room and control the volume and source independent of the main area.

Lastly, there are quite a few modes dedicated to simulated surround from two-channel sources.  I don’t particularly care for these modes as a rule, but for those who enjoy them, the Outlaw has all the current modes from Pro Logic IIx to DTS, and has a virtual surround mode as well as a 5- and 7-channel stereo mode (for you party animals out there).

AM/FM Tuner Listening

The unit came with a dipole antenna, but requires a 300-ohm to 75-ohm converter (included).  It would have made more sense to include an antenna with an F- or J-connector already attached, so as to save the effort of getting a screwdriver out to make it work—minor point of course.  I also noticed that when you preset stations, the unit doesn’t automatically advance to the next unused number so as to avoid overwriting the preset you just memorized.

My first test with any FM tuner is to see how well it receives 88.1, the local jazz station—a station that is notoriously hard to get in this area.  The 990 was able to tune the station albeit noisily in stereo mode.  In any case, it was listenable.  Stronger stations sounded good and on classical stations (where any amount of noise can be extremely intrusive in quiet passages) proper positioning of the antenna produced fairly low amounts of background noise.  There was, however, a bit of whine and mechanical noise that was slightly bothersome when music was very quiet.  Engaging the mono switch eliminated it completely making the background dead quiet.  This might not be necessary in some areas (or with an outside antenna), but could be a compromise for some. [Even with perfect reception, hiss goes away when you switch to mono; just part of the imperfect system of multiplex FM stereo…Ed.]

One thing I discovered is that Outlaw’s statement that the “bypass” mode is a better-sounding option than the straight “stereo” mode is true.  If you don’t intend to use any of the surround options, I would use it exclusively for stereo material. [True on even the most expensive AV preamps…Ed.]

I tried AM and it was pretty bad as expected.  Often there would be hum, whine, compression, and all sorts of noise.  Many stations didn’t come in at all.  I wouldn’t plan on using the 990 for quality AM reception.


Phono Listening

I wasn’t expecting much from the phono stage in the Outlaw, but was somewhat surprised with its performance.  I used the Rega table with cartridge and switched it back and forth between a direct connection with the Outlaw and into the NAD PP-2.  The outboard preamplifier offers the option of using a moving coil cartridge (though I didn’t), but requires an extra set of cables.

I listened to several records and the difference between the two pieces was consistent.  With “Take The Long Way Home” off a Japanese pressing of Supertramp’s Breakfast In America I thought the NAD did a slightly better job with the opening piano in terms of definition and scale, while the voice was a tad more focused.  The Outlaw tended to sound a bit untidy, while the NAD sounded flatter, but images blended together better.

With “We’re In This Love Together” from Al Jarreau’s Breakin’ Away disc I thought the 990 had a slight edge and wasn’t as easy on the ears.  The NAD had a slightly more solid soundstage although, like before, was flatter in its presentation.  If you want more dimension and depth then you’ll want to investigate a better, outboard phono stage.

Lastly, I listened to “Ventura Highway” from America’s Greatest Hits record.  The Outlaw sounded “crunched up” and not as smooth as the PP-2.  Although the Outlaw had more front to back depth, the NAD was better in a couple of ways. 

All in all, the differences weren’t huge, so if you really want to improve on the sound of the phono section, I’d recommend going up to the next level.  The phono stage in the Outlaw is better than you’d find in most receivers for sure, so if LP playback isn’t at the top of your list, it will be more than acceptable.

CD Listening and Preamp Comparison

I had a Rotel stereo preamplifier on hand and I thought it might be interesting to hear how the Outlaw sounded in comparison to this piece.  After all, some people will use the 990 for listening to two-channel music as well.

The first tune I tried was “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Michael Buble’s It’s Time CD.  My first impression was these preamplifiers are in the same league sonically.  They both have a different presentation that will appeal to different people and better serve certain material.  The Outlaw put the voice more up front and had good depth.  In general it had more presence than the Rotel on this recording.  It played the music light and easy—with low fatigue.  With the Rotel the instruments were less spread out, but the image was more focused.  Which was better was clearly a matter of choice.  I liked the bigger, more open sound of the Outlaw on this track, while a friend liked the more focused sound of the Rotel.

The second track I tried was Brandy doing a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” from Quincy Jones Q’s Jook Joint.  With this track, the fact that the 990 pushed vocals forward helped as far as the audibility of vocals (that include Heavy D. and the Boyz and Quincy Jones).  The Rotel was more incisive, but didn’t have the ease/relaxing quality of the Outlaw.

Lastly I tried “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis from the Pure Moods II CD.  On this track I preferred the sound with the Rotel.  The instruments were better defined, so individual instruments stuck out better making the music more involving.  The Outlaw was too relaxed and prevented me from getting chills like I usually get while listening to this music.

Ultimately it will come down to preference, but it was refreshing to see that the Outlaw could hold its own next to a well-regarded stereo preamplifier.  For those looking for the 990 to do double duty as a stereo and surround piece, you can be assured it is a competent performer.

Listening with Upsampling

Upsampling has always been a mixed bag for me.  Originally, I heard it with my Meridian 568 Preamplifier and thought it made CDs sound better.  Since then I’ve heard it sound better, not very different, or even worse with some pieces of equipment and with some recordings.  When you engage this feature on the Outlaw you will be giving up the simpler circuit path of the “bypass” mode in favor of the possibility of better sound via the digital circuits.

I tried a couple of classical samplers from Telarc to compare the “bypass” and “upsampling” modes.  I was using the analog output of the Musical Fidelity CD player for these tests.

From Telarc’s Sampler Volume III I listened to a Handel: Messiah, “All they that see him, He trusted in God” excerpt.  The “bypass” mode offered a smoother sound, but did not have as much reverberation and air.  The “upsampling” mode was edgier on the strings (voice seemed close) and produced a bigger acoustic space with more reverberation.  On this track–with this CD player—I would choose the “bypass” mode.  With a lesser player or via the digital input the choice may have been different.

Another track, “Hut of Baba Yaga” from Moussorgsky Picture at an Exhibition, from Telarc’s Sampler Volume II, the results were much the same.  I asked an audiophile friend what he heard and without any coaxing he described exactly what I heard—the “upsampling” mode had a wider soundstage, but was more diffuse and had a slight edge.  The “bypass” mode was better defined, but with not as much air and depth.  The difference is most likely due to the CD player, but subjectively less edge was better for me.  Another may prefer the added sense of size and extreme top end.

DVD Listening

One of the nice features offered by the 990 is the ability to adjust lip sync for each input.  With the plasma television in this review I had no trouble with video delay, however in other situations, it could be necessary.  For those unfamiliar with this feature, lip sync allows the user to adjust the audio delay to compensate for a video delay that sometimes occurs from video processing in the display device or in the source.  I’ve noticed it most often with satellite broadcasts and sometimes it is so bad it feels like you’re watching a dubbed kung fu film.

Most of the comments made in the other Listening sections of this review so far also hold for the surround listening.  With chapter three from Toy Story the different character voices were easily distinguishable.  The preamplifier tends to err on the side of ease and a softer, pleasing presentation.  For those upgrading from a receiver it’s likely that the Outlaw will sound better.  For those who are moving sideways (money-wise) from a dedicated stereo system, there might be a feeling of loss of definition.  If what you like is a hyper-detailed/analytical sound, then you had better look elsewhere.  Of course, where is it you can find a 7.1 surround preamplifier with balanced outputs for $1100?

In chapter three from Mission Impossible II I wished I had a bigger screen to match the big sound I was getting from the audio system.  The Outlaw is not the final word on high frequency extension, but it definitely provides the feeling of being in the middle of the action.  It was easy to get lost in the film and forget that I had to critically listen.  Proper setup and matching speakers really helped to provide a uniform sound throughout all the surround listening tests.

For the final video test I put on U-571.  The DTS sound trailer didn’t have the crispness and attack that I’m used to, but some of this could have been the amplifier.  I watched chapters seven, eight, and fifteen.  This includes a scene out in the ocean with lots of rain and low level sounds as well as the infamous “depth-charge” sequence.  The softness of the presentation took away some of the slam and impact to which I’m accustomed.  It got loud and everything sounded coherent, but there was an ultimate lack of clarity that keeps this piece out of the league of much higher-priced components.  You often “get what you pay for”; that shouldn’t come as a surprise to our readers.

I also tried some audio surround—namely “Thank You” from Boyz II Men II in DTS.  The sound was smooth and the improvement in definition over standard CDs (aside from the surround capability) was clearly evident through the system.  It’s worth noting that the Outlaw never produced any weird noises, acted strangely, or produced noise of any note throughout the listening tests.


In summary, taking everything into account, it is hard not to be positive about the Outlaw 990.  It is perfect by no means:  It has some operation quirks, is big and industrial looking, doesn’t provide the very last word on clarity and definition, but overall, for what it is and can do, I can’t imagine anything else coming close at this price point.  It’s been a long time since I reviewed the original Outlaw receiver, but what I do remember from it is this:  It handily outperformed the competition near its price and managed to always sound pleasant, forgiving, and to not get in the way of the source material.  That sums up my experience with the 990—a bargain and a very enjoyable listen!

— Brian Bloom

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